Folk Hero Gordon Lightfoot
Photography: Bryan Adams
This month (Nov. 17), the Canadian folk icon Gordon Lightfoot turned 77-years-young. Here, read our interview with the singer, songwriter and national treasure from the March 2011 cover of Zoomer.
David Livingstone sits down with Gordon Lightfoot, singer and learns that rumours of his death are greatly exaggerated.
“When the skies of November turn gloomy.” With those spare words from “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot took ownership of fall in a northern land. He owns Canadian spring, too. In “Did She Mention My Name?” he refers to “when the late snow turns to rain” and, just in passing, nails another particular misery that belongs to this great land.
But on a November afternoon when the sky is doing exactly what he said it would, Lightfoot, looking out the window, pretends to see nothing more than signs that “there’s going to be snow tonight.”
He laughs after he says it, as if to acknowledge that he knows he’s done better, as if to say that his impersonation of homespun meteorologist is a pose. Still, don’t expect the lyricism of his songs to pour out of the man just like that.
“I’d have to start talkin’, like, in poetic terms,” he says, going out of his way to make himself sound prosaic.
“And you don’t like to do that?”
“I can’t do that. I can only do that when I sing and play. I’m just a normal, everyday person.”
Meanwhile, it’s a lifetime of performing out on the road — 81 dates last year — that taught him to travel light. He knows what he likes to wear and how to carry it in one bag. Today, among the pieces he’s packing is a tapered and cropped blue velvet jacket that is practically foppish. “Black jeans,” says Lightfoot, “and it works.”
But when I ask if he’s vain, he answers, “Ain’t we all,” again retreating into his de- fault disguise of being no one special.
Having grown up in Orillia, in rural Ontario, Lightfoot has always identified with the salt of the earth. Back in 1966, six weeks after the release of his first album, he told the Globe and Mail, “I guess you could call me a cosmopolitan hick.”
He still goes out of his way not to give himself airs. He’ll try to tell you his routine is “more mundane than most people would ever believe.” Outlining a typical day, he gets no further than “I get up early, at eight o’clock,” before he feels obliged to recognize that there are lots of people who get up a lot earlier.
“Running my little office … going to the gym … looking after my family” — Lightfoot doesn’t do a bad job of portraying himself as the guy next door. That doesn’t mean he’s lying when he sings about having been “stood up” and “shut down” or doing “what you don’t confess.”
Lightfoot’s personal life has not been all pussy willows and cattails. As a boy, he sang at weddings, tunes such as “O Promise Me.” On his very first album, he became the hard-bitten loner, serving notice that he had commitment issues with “For Lovin’ Me” and “I’m Not Sayin’.” Sometimes he would choose music as a priority and lose a relationship. “That happened quite a few times.”
Drinking, which he quit in 1983, made for messes and regrets. However you calculate the convolutions of Lightfoot’s love life, he casts his romantic past in a kindly, sometimes comic, light.
At the shoot and during the interview, Lightfoot is accompanied by Bernie Fiedler, who used to run The Riverboat, the Toronto coffee house where he was instrumental in launching some of Canada’s most successful singer-songwriters, including Lightfoot, Bruce Cockburn and Joni Mitchell. Fiedler still runs an artist management company, but he explains his presence by saying, “I’m Gordon’s longest and best friend.”
Although Fiedler is involved with booking — a May tour is already scheduled for Ontario, including one of the concerts at Massey Hall that Lightfoot’s been playing since the 1960s at roughly 18-month intervals — he tells me, “Gordon more or less manages himself.”
When not on tour, Lightfoot prepares for the next one. There are practices with the band, some of whose members have been playing with him for more than 30 years. Since Lightfoot’s post-aneurysm recovery, they’ve been teaching themselves new tricks, turning what he calls “good solid tuning” into “absolute tuning,” an ideal that spurs them on.
Lightfoot listens to what’s on the radio and buys a few CDs, the last being the latest Neil Young, but otherwise he concentrates on his own music. He practises the guitar a lot while following the games on TV. And he follows them all: hockey and football, both the CFL and NFL.
Lightfoot, of course, has been singing even longer than he has been picking. He grew up under the influence of four aunts, on his mother’s side, who sang together. Their last name was Trill, as if that couldn’t be an omen.
Lightfoot last released a new CD in 2004, but he’s in no hurry to put out the kind of recording that veterans sometimes do to keep their hand in the game. He’s not interested in doing an album of duets — a shame since he would get to use what his aunts must have taught him about harmony. And he’s one of the few recording artists who has not issued a Yuletide collection, even though for almost 40 years he’s sung on Christmas Eve at Toronto’s Rosedale United Church.
Lightfoot sang in church as a boy and allows that whatever religion was instilled then lives on “to a certain degree.” As for politics, he says, “I’m not very political. I watch.”
And what he sees does not support any notion that much is changing. “I think history repeats itself. That worries me. That’s a little bit scary. I know that there are some mighty big things coming down in the next while – If you ask me, there are so many developments going on between nations — and the economy — it’s all very dicey.”
Wary of the times, Lightfoot is nothing but satisfied about the places he’s been. A veteran of some of Toronto’s loveliest and priciest residential neighbourhoods, he maintains a small-town boy’s appreciation for the city. “I love Toronto. I was happy to be able to live here early in my career.”
He comes closer to gushing when I ask him about Canada. “I think it’s the best country in the world,” he says.
“What makes it that?”
“What it is,” he answers sparely, dropping all sentimentality. “It’s a huge country. A lot of it is virgin territory. A lot of it’s cold. It’s very cold.”
And he’s been to every bit of it. For 10 years, from 1973 to 1983, major canoe expeditions in northern Canada were routine. “It was absolutely unbelievable. You had to be there to believe.” You also had to be a “little bit masochistic” to do it in the first place, to think of “20 miles a day of hard track” as fun.